Transit to Death

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The Judenräte (Jewish councils) were frequently caught off guard by deportation orders, the timing of which usually coincided with Jewish religious holidays to maximise the element of surprise. Local police units and the Jewish police were tasked with the implementation of the Aktion (round-up of Jews). Names which appeared on the deportation lists were ordered to pack bare essentials and assemble at a pre-determined location — the Umschlagplatz — usually a factory or some other site located in the vicinity of a train station. Refusal to comply with the order and attempt to escape or hide was punishable by death. Poorly ventilated cattle cars were used as transport. Once those summoned had been loaded onto the wagons, they were locked in without food, water or sanitation until the train reached its destination — usually a journey of several days. Due to appalling conditions of overcrowding, hunger and suffocation, many died before they reached their destination.

The process was shrouded in secrecy and deception. To maintain order and ensure compliance, the Nazis lied about the purpose of the round-up of Jews and their ‘resettlement’. Aktionen, lasting often several days, would suddenly descend upon cities, town or communities: at first only the most vulnerable were targeted — the poor, the homeless, and the displaced. Those not summoned initially clung to the illusion that they had been spared. However, after the first wave of deportation, the process repeated until the place was declared “free of Jews”.

They did not know that they marked for death, they were repeatedly reassured by the Nazis that they were being sent to a work camp, which implied that their survival was necessary to supply the Nazis with a labour force (and it was known that the Nazis were indeed desperately short of labour as the war continued). The Jews had been completely isolated. Through fear, starvation and dislocation, the ghetto population had had their strength and will to disobey steadily sapped. The Nazi deception of resettlement to the east presented an apparent possibility of survival, albeit illusory. Consequently, Jews had been reduced to focusing on their day-to-day survival and the welfare of family members. The disruptive effects of Aktionen did not merely destabilise the Jews psychologically, it made opposition all but impossible. Any rumours that filtered back to the ghettos about death camps were usually disbelieved and dismissed. They defied logic; they were beyond human comprehension. Nazi Germany deceived the Jews until the very end.

Yet, a number of revolts did take place whenever Nazi deception failed and the Jews learned the truth about the fate awaiting them. The most well-known of the revolts was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943.